How to Identify a Red-Tailed Hawk

Not sure which hawk you're seeing? Here's how to tell whether a bird of prey is a red-tailed hawk, based on plumage, behavior and more.

278094126 1 Keith Calhoun Bnb Bypc 2021, red-tailed hawkCourtesy Keith Calhoun
Red-tailed hawk

Every birder knows it—hawks are some of the trickiest birds to identify. Sure, it’s almost always obvious when you’ve seen a hawk. But which hawk? Red-tailed hawks are widespread across most of the country. So there’s a good chance the big bird of prey you’ve spotted is a red-tailed hawk. Here’s how to know for sure.

Red-Tailed Hawk Features

red tailed hawkCourtesy Gay Raab

Like other hawks, red-taileds have a sharp, curved bill. This allows them to easily tear apart their prey. (Here’s which foods hawks eat.) Their large, deep eyes provide excellent vision and are typically dark-colored. In the case of a juvenile red-tailed hawk, birding experts Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman note that the eyes are yellow. Four talons on each foot capture and hold prey.

There’s plenty of bulk to this hawk’s stature, so you might assume it’s a heavy bird. But you would be wrong. Despite its height of 2 feet and its 4-foot wingspan, it weighs less than 3 pounds.

If you love seeing hawks, you must visit these hawk migration hotspots.

Red-Tailed Hawk Plumage

275538363 1 Clifford Price Bnb Bypc 2021Courtesy Clifford Price
Look for a light colored belly streaked with brown feathers.

Identifying red-taileds based on plumage can be tough. The Kaufmans note there are many different plumage variations among red-tailed hawks, with a majority of the birds having white or light-colored chests. Others, however, have reddish brown or almost black underparts.

In the case of a “typical” red-tailed hawk, the bird sports dark brown feathers on its back, face and wings, and a light-colored belly streaked with brown feathers. The Kaufmans say reddish red-tails are referred to as “rufous morphs,” and they tend to live in the West.

Here’s how to identify a Cooper’s hawk vs a sharp-shinned hawk.

Do Red-Tailed Hawks Have Red Tails?

red tailed hawk, hawk identificationCourtesy Terry Moore
Juvenile birds do not have the red tail feathers.

A surefire way to tell an adult red-tailed from a juvenile is to look at its tail. Adults feature red feathers on their tails, while juveniles’ tails are a darker brown. The Kaufmans explain that the younger birds don’t show reddish tail feathers until they are at least a year old.

Learn more about raptors, amazing birds of prey.

Red-Tailed Hawk Behavior

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Red-tailed hawk in flight

These hawks like to hang out perched along roadsides; they have a habit of soaring with barely a flap of their wings. They’re commonly found in open country, but they’ve moved into cities and suburbs in recent years.

Surprisingly, smaller birds might be more tolerant of a red-tailed hawk’s presence than other birds of prey. The Kaufmans mention that unlike Cooper’s hawks or peregrine falcons, red-taileds aren’t usually fast enough to catch a bird.

Next, discover why crows chase hawks.

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Emily Hannemann
Emily Hannemann is an associate digital editor for Birds & Blooms. She has a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in magazine writing from the University of Missouri - Columbia. When she’s not writing and editing, you’ll find her swimming, running, or hiking. She knows blue jays are controversial, but she loves them anyway.